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Courts view interns the same as employees: as “agents” of your organization. So should you.

If you use interns or plan to, advise supervisors to manage them as closely as employees, if not more so. And apply your workplace policies to them.

Reason: Your organization can be held responsible for the actions of anybody, including unpaid interns, while they perform work for you. The activities of interns are under the employer’s control, not the school’s.

Some courts have ruled that employment-discrimination laws don’t apply to unpaid interns. But that doesn’t mean you can allow intern harassment. In fact, interns may be able to pursue claims under Title IX, which bans sex bias in education programs.

Also, if your intern program reaches out to high schoolers, remember to follow federal child labor laws. For further details, visit www.dol.gov/dol/topic/youthlabor, and check your state’s child labor laws.

To help structure a legally sound intern program, follow these four steps:

  1. Define supervisory roles and supervisor/intern evaluations. Reliable supervision is the key to preventing problems, including injuries, discrimination and poor performance. Make sure all supervisors know who oversees each intern’s work.
  2. Draft an intern policy. It can reduce misunderstandings that can lead to lawsuits. The policy should define the program, such as compensation structure (or the fact that interns won’t be paid), eligibility requirements and the intern’s at-will status. Never imply the promise of employment.
  3. Pick up formal documentation from the intern’s school that explains the educational relevance of the internship if the student will earn credit.
  4. Ask whether the school provides liability insurance to cover any damage caused by a student. Many schools carry it. If your organization carries employment-practices liability insurance, see if it extends to interns.   

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